Is COVID-19 infecting the relationship between the U.S. and China?

Three Penn experts say the relationship between the countries was troubled before the coronavirus pandemic, but the outbreak is exacerbating the preexisting problems.

Row of Chinese flags outside a Chinese government building in daylight

The relationship between the United States and China was troubled before the coronavirus pandemic, but the outbreak is underscoring and reflecting problems that had been emerging between the two nations for years, according to three Penn experts.

“If the U.S.-China relationship was a patient, it has a lot of preexisting comorbidities that COVID-19 is just going to exacerbate,” said Amy Gadsden, associate vice provost for global initiatives and the executive director of Penn China initiatives, during a virtual event at Perry World House (PWH).

The event, hosted by PWH interim director Michael Horowitz, featured Gadsden, Jacques deLisle, and Avery Goldstein weighing in on how the pandemic might be infecting the relationship between the two most powerful nations on earth. More than 200 attendees joined the Zoom chat from all over the globe, including China.

They all agree both nations bungled the initial response to the outbreak and are now trying to point fingers at each other.

“What we’ve seen is that each side tries to claim that this pandemic is revealing the other side’s weaknesses and what’s wrong with their system, their way of governing and running society,” said Goldstein, the David M. Knott Professor of Global Politics and International Relations in the political science department and inaugural director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China. At the same time each nation is trying “to emphasize how the way they are responding reflects all the strengths of their political system,” he said.

In both China and the United States, the government was slow to respond to the crisis for essentially the same reasons, namely a fear that being truthful about the scope of the pandemic would undermine public faith in the leadership, Gadsden said.

“That looks very different in authoritarian China than it does in the democratic United States, but essentially the same concerns drove decision-making early on in the response to the epidemic,” she said.

The rivalry between the U.S. and China had been growing ever since the Obama administration, and the trend toward decoupling was already underway before the pandemic, but the outbreak is exacerbating that, they said.

“We see that especially in the United States with the call to reduce American dependence on China for pharmaceuticals, and in concerns that the U.S. seems to have to rely on China for masks and ventilators and gowns,” Goldstein said. “Rather than saying we have to become self-reliant, what we need to do is diversify beyond China but sustain a healthy working relationship with China because they are a producer of some of these goods that are high quality and relatively low priced.”

DeLisle, the Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law, professor of political science and director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China, called the pandemic “almost the perfect storm” for the U.S. to push a hardline stance.

“On the U.S. side of it, it played to every piece of the Trump administration’s negativity on China,” deLisle said. “You get to be nativist, you get to shut down travel, you get to call it the ‘Wuhan Virus,’ and you get to beat up on the WHO as a U.N.-centered institution and call it too close to China.”

Whether the viral outbreak has weakened or strengthened China remains to be seen, but there are competing arguments supporting both assessments, Gadsden said. As the U.S. has retreated from being a global leader on the world stage under Trump, it has created a vacuum that China could fill, she said.

For Goldstein, one of the most frustrating challenges has been the tariffs that were put into place under the Trump administration.

“It really is kind of mind boggling that one of the first things the Trump administration did not do was to say, ‘We are temporarily suspending the tariffs on a relevant goods that can provide PPE to Americans who need these, medical workers on the frontlines in American cities and across the United States.’ That was, in my mind, a huge mistake,” he said.

One of the biggest issues facing the U.S.-China relationship for the last two years has been the idea that any collaboration in science and technology between the two nations is threatening national security, Gadsden said.

They all agreed the experience of the pandemic is underscoring the importance of scientific collaboration and should encourage both countries to understand that decoupling of the scientific community is unwise.

Despite the current tensions, there is the possibility that the outbreak could lead to greater cooperation between the U.S. and China, they said.

“Hopefully, near-death experiences lead to serious attempts to prevent the next one,” deLisle said, adding he hopes the two nations could collaborate “not just on a vaccine but how to deal with future pandemics.” That might also include “thinking about climate change, which is the slow-motion COVID.”

Both nations have needed to better manage the rivalry, Goldstein said. “Maybe the pandemic will help encourage that.”

The discussion was part of a series of virtual events PWH has hosted during the coronavirus pandemic. On April 20, former U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster will discuss COVID-19’s impact on international affairs. On April 21, Penn’s Julia Lynch, a political scientist, and Harvey Rubin, professor of medicine, will discuss how international and domestic governments can triage global health governance to better respond to emergencies like the viral outbreak.

Registration for the April 20 event is here; registration for the April 21 event is here.

A video of the U.S.-China discussion is here.